I’ve completely succumbed to the Troyat biography discussed in this post (and Yana Weinstein convinced me I was wrong to make fun of the word “sibilant”), and today it taught me a fairly useless but interesting word, gabion. Young Lieutenant Tolstoy, having gotten bored with swanning around the general staff HQ well behind the front lines near the Danube during the Crimean War, asks to be sent to where the action is, in the Crimea, and winds up in Sebastopol: “Assigned to the 3rd light battery of the 14th Artillery Brigade, he found to his annoyance that he was quartered in the city itself, far from the fortifications and outworks.” Troyat describes the “strange mixture of ‘camp life’ and ‘town life’” in the city, then says:
Closer to the fortifications, the town assumed a more tragic aspect. Houses in ruins, roadways transformed into pitted dumps, bombs half-buried in the mud, the smell of carrion and cannon powder. Stooping over, soldiers crept along the maze of trenches. At the back of a casemate non-commissioned officers played cards by candlelight; sailors picked lice off each other on an esplanade surrounded by gabions; near a cannon a lieutenant rolled a cigarette in yellow paper. Balls whistled. Bombs crashed. The sentinels called out, “Ca-a-non!” or “Mortar!” to give warning.
I was, of course, struck by the word “gabion,” and the context gave no clue as to what it might be, so I went to the OED and found:
gabion [a. F. gabion, ad. It. gabbione augmentative of gabbia cage:—L. cavea. Cf. It. gaggia = F. cage:—cavea: see CAGE.] 1. A wicker basket, of cylindrical form, usually open at both ends, intended to be filled with earth, for use in fortification and engineering.
(You can see a picture of some medieval gabions here.) But it was the second definition that impelled me to post:
2. Used fig. (with allusion to quots. 1638) by Scott.
1638 ADAMSON Muses Threnodie (note), The ornaments of his Cabin, which by a Catachrestic name, he usually calleth Gabions. Ibid. (title of piece), Inventarie of the Gabions, in M. George his Cabinet. a1832 SCOTT in Harper’s Mag. LXXVIII. (1889) 779 [Gabions are] curiosities of small intrinsic value, whether rare books, antiquities, or small articles of the fine or of the useful arts. 1837 LOCKHART Scott (1838) VII. 218 Sir Walter.. began.. to dictate of Laidlaw what he designed to publish in the usual novel shape, under the title of ‘Reliquiæ Trottcosienses, or the Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck’.
Well, that was intriguing! But my attempts to investigate this Muses Threnodie were foiled; the only texts available online are brief excerpts, like the one linked in the Wikipedia article on the author. If you do a Google Books search, you find that all copies of this book—published in 1638!—are “No preview available.” What the devil, Google?